Aleister Crowley on James Joyce

Only yesterday, I finished reading Richard Kaczynski’s Perdurabo, the monumental biography of Aleister Crowley. I had intended on publishing a review of that book today, but seeing as though it’s Saint Patrick’s day, I thought I should post something relating to my native Ireland. Last year, I posted Aleister Crowley’s poem “Saint Patrick’s Day, 1902”. It was my second post discussing Crowley’s strange attitude towards Ireland. While reading through Kaczynski’s biography of the Great Beast, I found another interesting link between Crowley and the Emerald Isle.

aleister crowley and james joyce.jpg

In July 1923, Crowley had an article titled “The Genius of Mr. James Joyce” published in New Pearson’s Magazine. Crowley discusses both Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and the then recently published Ulysses, showering both novels with lavish praise. When reading Crowley, one should always consider the possibility that he’s being insincere, but that’s clearly not the case here. It’s not hard to see how Crowley would be interested in a character like Joyce; both men were leaders in their fields, sexual deviants, largely misunderstood, and victims of censorship. (Although the two men never met, several people, including Kaczynski and Robert Anton Wilson, have pointed out similarities in their writing.)

james joyce aleister crowley

Here then, in its entirety, is Aleister’s article on Jimmy:

The Genius of Mr. James Joyce

Within the last twenty years a new form of literature has been evolved, the novel of the mind. I mean by this a story where what men do is described only as the outcome of what they think and feel and believe, and where the focus of interest is in their thoughts rather than in their acts. This literature is still in its experimental stage, and a majority of the novelists fail because they think it is enough to observe correctly, and so produce pathological studies rather than works of art. Their work is interesting because it is concerned with reality, but for the most part it is  indifferent literature, because the reality has not been worked into proper shape. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the further the majority of these writers probe into the mind of man, the further they depart from artistic creation.

My Wyndham Lewis’ novel Tarr is a case in point. It is one of the most interesting books written within the last ten years. It is a book that opens a secret cupboard and displays the contents with an observation that compels our admiration, but our chief interest is in watching the cat let out of the bag. All sensitive men are compelled to plead guilty to the indictment, but there is little indication that the author is interested in style for its own sake, and that his purpose would not have been as well served by an essay on the hatred of human beings for human nature.

This form of writing has been saved, by the genius of Mr. James Joyce, from its worst fate, that of becoming a mere amateur contribution to medical text-books.

Every new discovery produces a genius. Its enemies might say that psych-analysis—the latest and deepest theory to account for the vagaries of human behavior—has found the genius it deserves. Although Mr. Joyce is  known only to a limited circle in England and America, his work has been ranked with that of Swift, Sterne, and Rabelais by such critics as M. Vatery, Mr. Ezra Pound and Mr. T. S. Eliot.

There is caution to be exercised in appraising the work of a contemporary. When we like him at all, we are inclined to like him too much, because we are in unconscious sympathy with his presentation of life, and are incapable of judging his work impartially. I am convinced personally that Mr. Joyce is a genius all the world will have to recognize. I rest my proof upon his most important book Ulysses, and upon his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, and on such portions of Ulysses as have appeared. Before these he wrote two books, Chamber Music (The Egoist Press, London), a collection of most delicate songs, and Dubliners (Grant Richards, London), sketches of Dublin life distinguished by its savage bitterness, and the subsequent hostility it excited. The Portrait when it appeared was hailed as a masterpiece, but it has been boycotted by libraries and booksellers for no discernible reason other than the fact that the profound descriptions tell the truth from a new, and therefore to the majority a disturbing, point of view.

The book is the history of the infancy, childhood, and adolescence of a high-school boy, Stephen Daedalus. While he is little his people are prosperous gentle folk, by the time he is grown up they are living in a Dublin slum. In a magnificent early chapter his family sit round their rich Christmas Dinner. It is the time of the Parnell tragedy, and every person there takes a different view of it with an equal passion, and their dispute rises with matchless intensity until Stephen’s father is left alone at the head of the table and cries and says, “Parnell, my dead king.”

Stephen goes to a Catholic public school, and his young body and his young beliefs drive hell into him, and he leaves school and goes to college and finds his nature unchanged. He grows up in love with absolute beauty, and obsessed with the obscenity of life. He is tortured so soon as he is able to perceive the conflict of the body and the soul, the excremental animal and the image of God.

The book is written with the utmost delicacy and vigor. When Stephen is a baby, Mr. Joyce selected the exact incidents that would impress the hardly conscious minds in such a way that the reader finds that his own infantile memories are astir. He recalls his own mind when it was incapable of synthesis and conscious only of alternation between nourishment and excretion. Gradually the child becomes aware of the relation between one thing and another, with adolescence his consciousness becomes complete, and the struggle of the individual to express and reconcile himself to life begins. As his mind changes Mr. Joyce changes his style, the unperceiving mind is shown so that the actual texture of its unperceptiveness is felt, an incomplete thought is given in its incompleteness. But when Mr. Joyce leaves his characters to their stream of unsorted perceptions and speaks for himself, he write classical English prose with the particular beauty proper to a new master. Stephen is walking on the cliffs of Dublin bay, and looks over to the town and sees—

“as a scene, or some dim areas, old as man’s weariness the image of the seventh city of Christendom was present to him across the timeless air, not older, not more weary, nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.”

The end of the Portrait leaves Stephen still at Dublin University. He is the eldest, a swarm of brothers and sisters sit round the table and drink tea out of jam pots. His mother “is ashamed a University student should be so dirty, his own mother has to wash him.” He is the poorest of poor students, the most gifted, proud and perverse. We leave him, knowing that there is worse in store for him and turn to Ulysses.

Ulysses (The Shakespeare Book Co., Paris—by subscription), as the title suggests, is another Odyssey of a small Jewish commercial traveler round about the Dublin streets on one day.

About him there unwinds the most extraordinary procession of his friends and acquaintances from one public house to the next, and among them is Stephen, his father gone in drink, Buck Mulligan, a horsey “tough,” barmaids, the Rev. Father Conmee S. J. Stephen’s little sister buying a French grammar for a penny, maid-servants, loafers, business men, all passing and talking and dreaming, and observed and set down to what seems the last possible point of human observation.

A great part of the book is passed in a public house where the scenes of the Odyssey are represented by two barmaids standing behind a barrier of whiskey-bottles which contain, as Mr. Joyce observes, “orient and immortal wheat standing from everlasting to everlasting.”

Stephen is now a school master, reading Lycidas over the heads of a class of indifferent children. He is now a quite subsidiary character. It is in Mr. Bloom that the essence of the book lies.

The disreputable, snobbish Catholic world sees in Mr. Bloom a commercial traveler of a despised race. Mr. Bloom sees himself as a lover, a poet, a gourmet, and a man-of-the-world. Yet he is an acute observer of himself, he takes himself into his own confidence, and it is infinitely entertaining to overhear him. It is also shocking and startling. His Odyssey is between his home, some shops, a cemetery and a public-house, in a trance on foot. In the beginning he buys a piece of soap, “sweet lemony wax,” and the part taken by that piece of soap in his  trouser pocket is given its exact proportion. It has a life-history of its own, a “Little Odyssey.”

I have no space to enter upon the real profundity of this book, or its amazing achievement in sheer virtuosity. Mr. Joyce has taken Homer’s Odyssey and made an analogy, episode by episode, translating the great supernatural epic into terms of slang and betting slips, into the filth, meanness and wit and passion of Dublin today. Then the subtle little alien is shown exploiting, as once the “Zeus-born, son of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles” exploited, the ladies and goddesses of the “finest story in the world.”

At present Mr. Joyce is all but unknown except to the inmost ring of English and French lovers of the arts. In his own country prejudiced Dublin opinion is making a determined effort to boycott him. It would certainly reflect no discredit on the Commonwealth of Australia if she were to be one of the first to recognize a writer who will in time compel recognition from the whole civilized world.

 

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these lads in conjunction with each other. Both Aleister Crowley and James Joyce appear as central characters in Robert Anton Wilson’s Masks of the Illuminati.

Expect more on Crowley here soon. I should have the review of Perdurabo ready for next week.

Robert Anton Wilson, the Last Great Irish Modernist?

James Joyce and Albert Einstein are drinking in a pub together when a panicked man rushes into the bar. Jimmy, Albert and Sir John Babcock, the man claiming that he’s being pursued by a devil, leave the bar and go to Einstein’s apartment where Babcock recounts the mysterious occurrences that have led him to this point. His narrative is interspersed with questions, observations and pontifications from Joyce and Einstein. This is Masks of the Illuminati, Robert Anton Wilson’s 8th novel.

robert anton wilson masks illuminatiMasks of the Illuminati – Robert Anton Wilson
Dell Trade Paperback – 1981

The story is full of ideas that fans of Wilson will be familiar with, and there are references to half the authors that have been featured on this site. Not only do the names and works of writers like Lovecraft, Wilde, Charles Maturin and Philip Jose Farmer pop up throughout, but the story itself directly borrows from and repeatedly references Robert W. Chamber’s King in Yellow, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Vril. Oh, and Aleister Crowley turns out to be behind most of the plot’s mischief, so a basic understanding of his work, life story and personality is probably necessary for readers of this book. I felt pretty cool reading through and patting myself on the back every time I came across a reference that I recognized.

James Joyce is not only one of the main characters in this book; he’s also a huge stylistic influence on the writing. Lots of the people following this blog are probably just here for the Satanism and aliens, and these unfortunates might not have much of a background in Irish modernism, so I’ll just briefly state that James Joyce was a genius writer whose books about life in Dublin city got progressively more mental and complicated as he got older. His final novel, the infamous Finnegan’s Wake, is 600 pages of dense, indecipherable nonsense. (I watched a lecture by RAW on youtube a few years ago in which he described a means of using Finnegan’s Wake as a form of telling the future. Masks of the Illuminati is set pre Ulysses though, so there’s no overt discussion of FW in here.) For most of Masks of the Illuminati, the Joycean influence is mild, and only the sections describing characters’ dreams are truly loopy.

finnegans wake nonsenseI got about 6 pages into Finnegan’s Wake before giving up.

While Joyce is clearly an important influence on the writing of Masks, it’s hard to tell how much of the Joyciness in here is direct Joyciness and how much is Joyciness à la O’Brien. Some might think that Samuel Beckett is the next greatest Irish modernist after Joyce, but for my money, that title goes to Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien. (Beckett worked as a translator for Joyce as he was composing Finnegan’s Wake, and while his own writing was clearly influenced by the avant-garde nature of his master’s, O’Brien’s work is more overtly Dubliny than Beckett’s and so its weirdness is a bit more noticeably Joycean.) While the literary techniques in Joyce’s Ulysses vary from chapter to chapter, At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien’s equivalent masterpiece (and crucial companion to Ulysses in my opinion) tells its story through the repeated use of a selection of literary gimmicks.

Nature of gimmicks: various modes of information presentation: notes, poems, lists, etc.

Descriptions of things within the narrative of At Swim are labelled as if they part of a medical or judicial report. In a very similar manner, much of the description of characters and events in Masks of the Illuminati is presented in the form of questions and answers. Several portions of the narrative are also presented in the form of a screenplay. Joyce had done similar things in Ulysses, writing one chapter entirely as question and answers and one as a closet drama, but the way Wilson goes back and forth with these methods throughout the novel instead of keeping them in separate chapters makes his book read more like an O’Brien novel than one of Joyce’s.

That Wilson was a fan of O’Brien is common knowledge. He not only described O’Brien’s The Third Policeman as one of the greatest Irish novels; he also included De Selby, a recurrent character in O’Brien’s work, as a character in some of his own fiction. This recycling of fictional characters is distinctly Flannish; most of the characters in At Swim-Two-Birds are borrowed from other stories due to the narrator/author’s belief that there are already too many characters in the canon of literature.

flann o'brien einstein

So the ways in which Wilson tells his story and chooses his characters are undoubtedly similar to those of O’Brien, but it is his choice of characters that most clearly highlights the Flannish influence on Masks of the Illuminati. James Joyce appeared as an important character in O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive 17 years before Masks was published. Dalkey Archive was also heavily influenced by O’Brien’s interest in Einstein’s work (Alana Gillespie wrote a doctoral thesis addressing this influence), and at one point in the narrative, DeSelby (the character to later appear in Wilson’s fiction) directly critiques Einstein’s theory of relativity. Much like the fnords, Flann O’Brien’s influence on Masks of the Illuminati may not be immediately obvious, but it is present on every page.

I find it hard to imagine enjoying the work of either Joyce or O’Brien without having visited Dublin at least once. That might sound obnoxious, but if you’ve read the books, you’ll know what I mean. Soon after Masks of the Illuminati was published, Wilson and his wife moved to Ireland for six years. He later claimed that, “Dublin, to me, is a James Joyce theme park.”

james joyce statue

In a way it’s slightly ironic that Wilson was so inspired by the likes of Joyce. Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece, is a mock-epic. It takes the banal, vulgar events of an ordinary day in Dublin city and fits them into the structure of Homer’s Odyssey while simultaneously threading the narrative through every literary technique imaginable. A huge part of the appeal of Joyce’s writing is his ability to see and depict the fantastic in the ordinary. While Joyce wrote about everyday life, Robert Anton Wilson is most famous for his books about absolutely insane conspiracy theories. I love Robert Anton Wilson, but his approach of using bizarre writing techniques to write about bizarre topics is probably responsible for how relatively unpopular his writing is. He was clearly a very intelligent man with a passion for literature, but his fiction (or at least 4 out of the 5 of his novels that I have read) is remarkably inaccessible. The deliberate esotericism doubtlessly prevents squares from reading his books, but it gets nerdy, Irish weirdoes like me hot, bothered and horny for more.

That being said, I didn’t actually like how this book ended. I get that it’s supposed to be a mental book about mental topics, but the last chapter both goes and stays off the rails for a little too long. Showing a Joycean influence is cool, but going full on Finneganean is a bit embarrassing. The last 30 pages or so felt like watching a modern punk singer trying to pull a GG Allin – watching a copycat punch themself in the face and then roll around in their own feces isn’t shocking or transgressive anymore; it’s just a lad making a smelly mess of himself.

Overall though, Masks of the Illuminati is quite an interesting book. My review has focused on its Irish influences, but there’s lots more to the book. I’m sure that twice as much could be written about the Crowleyean influence and content, but I’ll leave that to somebody else. While Robert Anton Wilson was undeniably an American writer, it’s worth pointing that he spent almost one third the amount of time living in Ireland that James Joyce did, and so I can think that Ireland can take at least partial credit for his genius.

masks of the illuminati robert anton wilson

July 23rd is International Robert Anton Wilson day, so if you haven’t read any of his books, today would be a great time to start. If you’re already a fan, you should check out my RAW day post from last year, a review of his first novel, the Sex Magicians. It’s definitely one of the better posts on this blog.

Meeting the Other Crowd – Eddie Lenihan

meeting the other crowd - eddie lenihanMeeting the Other Crowd, The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland – Eddie Lenihan
Gill and Macmillan – 2003

I first encountered the author of this book in a Tg4 documentary about Alice Kyteler, the witch of Kilkenny. Just looking at him, you can tell that the man is a legend. There are loads of videos of him telling stories online, and you’d be better off watching them than reading this review. About 3 years ago, I was visiting Ireland and somehow ended up in the Freemason’s Hall in Dublin. I got chatting to one of the lads there about books on Irish folklore, and he recommended this. I bought it the next day.

The astute reader will have noticed a decline in the amount of non-fiction being reviewed on this blog recently. This is largely due to my developing revulsion towards occultism. I don’t know whether it’s having a kid, a job and less time or if it’s just that I’ve come to know what to expect from new-age imbeciles, but I simply don’t have the patience to wade through the sort of rubbish that I used to review. Standing in front of my bookshelf, trying to choose between an outdated book about aliens and a pamphlet about magic beans, I cast my eyes to the ground in despair. It was on its way to the ground that my line of sight crossed the copy of Meeting the Other Crowd on my bottom shelf, wedged in between books on the Holy Grail and serpent worship. Yes, this book would work. The topic is occult in every sense of the word and from what I had seen of the author, I knew it would be interesting

Fairies though. Isn’t that a bit lame?

Let’s make this very clear. The fairies of Ireland are not the pleasant, wingèd creatures, fluttering about and turning little girls into princesses that some might expect. Fairies are wrathful, violent, and manipulative entities that live in a shadow world, emerging to kidnap children and seek violent retribution for any actions they have perceived as wrongs against them. They’re not objectively bad or evil, but they are certainly the kind of things that are best avoided.

This book is a collection of stories that Eddie Lenihan collected over what seems to have been several decades. He traveled around Ireland, recording old people telling the fairy stories that they had heard throughout their lives. The tales have been transcribed fairly precisely, and they retain a flow of speech that makes it easy to imagine the voice of the teller as you’re reading their words. While all of the stories are followed with a brief commentary by Lenihan, I would have liked a little more information about the story tellers and when they were recorded.

The other issue here is the consistency of the different stories. Some of these accounts are absolutely fascinating, but some are little over a page long and present only minor variations to other stories in the collection. I suppose this was probably inevitable given the nature of the book though, and I’d prefer for these shorter stories to be included than omitted.

Unlike the authors of much of the occult material that I have reviewed on here, the tellers of these tales had, as far as I can tell, an honest conviction in the stories they were telling. These people weren’t out to proselytize or to make a buck. They were telling stories that they had been asked to tell. That in itself makes it much easier to both enjoy the stories as stories and to consider them as something more than imaginary.

A skeptic might claim that these accounts are the attempts of uneducated, rural people to rationalize the traumatic events in their lives (infant deaths, thefts, abductions) but that interpretation doesn’t do these stories justice. Whether or not the events in these tales occurred precisely as they are described has no bearing on their beauty and cultural worth. While I’m not entirely convinced about the objective existence of fairies, I don’t think I’d ever enter a Fairy Fort, just to be safe.

I’d recommend this book for anyone with an interest in folklore and/or malevolent shadow people. I’m looking forward to reading more of Lenihan’s books in the future.

Speaking as an Irishman: Aleister Crowley’s Saint Patrick’s Day Poem

crowley tiocfaidh ar la up the rahLast year, I wrote a post about Aleister Crowley in which I briefly discussed his strange fascination with Ireland. In the Book of Lies, he claims to be an Irishman, and his title within the O.T.O. was “Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all the Britains within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis”. In 1915, he tried to cause a scene in New York by proclaiming the birth of an independent Irish Republic. Thirteen years prior to doing so, he wrote a poem about the Emerald Isle. I’m going to post it here:

ST. PATRICK’S DAY, 1902.
“Written at Delhi.”

O GOOD St. Patrick, turn again
Thy mild eyes to the Western main!
Shalt thou be silent? thou forget?
Are there no snakes in Ireland yet?

“Death to the Saxon! Slay nor spare!”
“O God of Justice, hear us swear!”

The iron Saxon’s bloody hand
Metes out his murder on the land.
The light of Erin is forlorn.
The country fades: the people mourn.

Of land bereft, of right beguiled,
Starved, tortured, murdered, or exiled;
Of freedom robbed, of faith cajoled,
In secret councils bought and sold!

Their weapons are the cell, the law,
The gallows, and the scourge, to awe
Brave Irish hearts: their hates deny
The right to live — the right to die.

Our weapons — be they fire and cord,
The shell, the rifle, and the sword!
Without a helper or a friend
All means be righteous to the End!

Look not for help to wordy strife!
This battle is for death or life.
Melt mountains with a word — and then
The colder hearts of Englishmen!

Look not to Europe in your need!
Columbia’s but a broken reed!
Your own good hearts, your own strong hand
Win back at last the Irish land.

Won by the strength of cold despair
Our chance is near us — slay nor spare!
Open to fate the Saxons lie: —
Up! Ireland! ere the good hour fly!

Stand all our fortunes on one cast!
Arise! the hour is come at last.
One torch may fire the ungodly shrine —
O God! and may that torch be mine!

But, even when victory is assured,
Forget not all ye have endured!
Of native mercy dam the dyke,
And leave the snake no fang to strike!

They slew our women: let us then
At least annihilate their men!
Lest the ill race from faithless graves
Arise again to make us slaves.

Arise, O God, and stand, and smite
For Ireland’s wrong, for Ireland’s right!
Our Lady, stay the pitying tear!
There is no room for pity here!

What pity knew the Saxon e’er?
Arise, O God, and slay nor spare,
Until full vengeance rightly wrought
Bring all their house of wrong to nought!

Scorn, the catastrophe of crime,
these be their monuments through time!
And Ireland, green once more and fresh,
Draw life from their dissolving flesh!

By Saxon carcases renewed,
Spring up, O shamrock virgin-hued!
And in the glory of thy leaf
Let all forget the ancient grief!

Now is the hour! The drink is poured!
Wake! fatal and avenging sword!
Brave men of Erin, hand in hand,
Arise and free the lovely land!

“Death to the Saxon! Slay nor spare!”
“O God of Justice, hear us swear!”

 

I’d love to hear Bono and Enya do a duet version.

I haven’t read much else of Crowley’s poetry, but this seems more political than mystical. It’s quite vicious. I wonder how much of Crowley’s sympathy for Ireland was sincere and how much was just part of his anti-authoritarian shtick. Somehow, I doubt the Irish public of 1902 would have had much time for him.

Sorry for the recent lack of updates on the site; the books I’m reading at the moment are quite long, but I’m aiming for another two posts by the end of the month. Anyways, I hope you have a pleasant, holy and snake-free Saint Patrick’s day.

 

 

Brits out!

 

Rover, Wanderer, Nomad, Vagabond – Tarry Thou till I Come and Melmoth the Wanderer

tarry thou till i come crolyTarry Thou till I Come or Salathiel, the Wandering Jew – George Croly
Funk and Wagnalls – 1902 (Originally Published in 1828)

A long time ago, I read Paul Murray’s article on the greatest Gothic novels ever written. At that stage I had already read most of the books on the list*, and out of the ones I had not yet read, there was only one that I had never heard of: Salathiel The Immortal by George Croly. Murray’s description of the book reads:
Now almost forgotten, the Reverend George Croly was a friend of the Stoker family. In Salathiel the Immortal (1829), there are similarities of predicament between Salathiel and Dracula (as well as with that of Melmoth the Wanderer). Salathiel led the mob which promoted the death of Jesus, in return for which he was condemned to the misery of the undead state. A reshaping of the Wandering Jew legend which underlies so much of the gothic genre, including Melmoth the Wanderer. Like Maturin, Croly was a Church of Ireland clergyman.”
I have emboldened all the parts of this description that convinced me that I would have to read this book. I looked it up to research further, but could not find a single review. Ohhh, the alluring mystique! I quickly ordered a copy online, and when it arrived, I was thouroughly impressed with the physical book. It was printed in 1901, includes several full page colour illustrations, and ends with a bunch of notes and critical essays. It’s about 700 pages of small text though, so it sat on the shelf for four years before I found the time to read it.

tarry thou frontispiece
So, the Wandering Jew is a legendary character who was supposedly doomed to immortality after insulting Christ during the events leading up to his death. In this version of the tale, he is Salathiel, a priest of the Temple who had been gravely insulted by Christ’s heresy against traditional Judaism. Salathiel is the man who led the crowd demanding the blood of Christ. The book begins right at the moment of his exultation. As Jesus is lead to the cross, Salathiel hears a voice whisper “Tarry thou till I come” and understands that this is the voice of God telling him that he is going to have to wait around on Earth until Jesus returns on judgement day.

Ok, so we’re off to a good start: a cursed priest doomed to walk the earth until the end of time. Now this tale was originally published in 1828, so you would imagine that its 500+ pages cover a time period of almost two millennia. However, the protagonist’s most striking feature, his ability to survive for thousands of years, barely comes into play in the events of the story. The book ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, roughly 35 years after Jesus was crucified. Yes, Salathiel shows impressive endurance and manages to escape from some very tricky situations, but aside from the book’s title, first chapter and final chapter, there is very little in here that suggests anything preternatural about the title character; by the end of the book, he might be as young as 60.

tarry thou sorcerorSalathiel meets a sorceror and spirit (That’s him in the back.)

This book includes virginal maidens, gloomy dungeons, heros, tyrants, curses, bandits, miraculous survivals, clergy, secret passageways, night journeys, and strange spectres: in short all the things that one might expect to find in a Gothic novel. But these elements are strewn (rather sparsely I will add) amoungst 500 pages of historical fiction about the siege of Jerusalem. Realistically, this is a fairly dry adventure novel about a warrior who has little fear of death. The main character has to rescue his family from captivity about 5 times, he escapes from captivity himself about 10 times, and finds himself doing battle (both physical and mental) with countless foes. He becomes stranded on a desert island, he briefly takes command of a pirate ship, he plans devastating attacks against the Roman forces, and he does it all for the love of his wife and children. There are a few spooky parts; he meets a ghost, a magician and some strange spirits, but these events only make up a few paragraphs in this tome. Referring to this book as a Gothic novel is a bit of a stretch.

 

 

 

Just some of the adventures on which our hero finds himself

So maybe it’s not Gothic, but is it any good? Well, it took me well over a month to finish it. I found the first 300 pages or so to be very, very boring. In fact, when I was reading it, I started wondering if this was not a precursor to the modernist novel. I wondered if Croly had deliberately avoided mentioning the legend of the wandering Jew and instead focused on extremely boring details. The horrendously wordy prose inflicts a sense of brutal tedium on his reader, and this technique gives that reader a sense of what life would be like for an individual who was doomed to live forever. Is this a stroke of absolute genius, or is it just poor writing? It’s hard to say.

The characterization is quite awful. Aside from their names, Salathiel’s associates are mostly interchangeable; they’re either completely good or completely bad. Also, some characters reappear after hundreds of pages of absence, and the reader is expected to remember exactly who they are. The biggest problem is with the title character though. Aside from a few hasty moments when he is contemplating his daughters being courted by a goy, Salathiel, the hero of this novel, is a very sensible, rational, empathetic individual. The idea that he was the man that led the mob against Christ (the proverbial ‘Jew that broke the camel’s back’) is very strange indeed. I would not be surprised to find out that Croly had written the novel and tacked on the few Wandering Jew parts afterwards because he realized that nobody would be interested if he didn’t lure them in with a familiar legend.

tarry thou jesus crolyLOL, keep walking, lil bitch!

Of course, the legend of the Wandering Jew is in itself quite bizarre. The idea is that Jesus put a curse on the lad for being mean to him. Let’s just recall that the fundamental belief of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died so that the sins of man could be forgiven. Isn’t it a bit odd then that he would personally inflict immense suffering on any individual for wronging him? Also, the nature of Salathiel’s trangression isn’t even that severe when you consider the context in which it occurred. He, a holy man, genuinely believed that Christ was a heretic trying to pervert his religion. Sure, it was a shitty thing to do to try to get him killed, but Salathiel seems genuinely remorseful afterwards. If Jesus had only cursed him with a bad dose of verrucas, Salathiel probably would have had to sit down for a while to contemplate his bad behaviour, and I reckon he’d quickly realize that he had been a bit harsh. He would have asked God for forgiveness, and if God had truly meant all the stuff that he had just had Jesus tell everyone, he’d have to forgive Salathiel immediately. As things currently stand, Salathiel is doomed to suffer regardless of how remorseful he is. Jesus is a hypocrite.

To today’s socially conscious reader, the title of this book might set off alarm bells. After all, the Nazis once made a propaganda film titled Der Ewige Jude (the German name for the Eternal/Wandering Jew). The legend of the Wandering Jew is doubtlessly anti-Semitic in its origins, but in fairness to Croly, I think it is safe to say that this book was not anti-Semitic by the standards of the time in which it was written; he’s definitely not attempting to demonize the Jews. He is however, more than happy to malign black people at every given opportunity. At one point he refers to Ethiopians as “Barbarians, with a tongue and physiognomy worthy only of their kindred baboons”.

In fairness, this book does pick up quite a bit towards the end, but overall, it’s really not that great. Tarry Thou till I Come will be a real treat for anyone with an interest in historical, religious fiction, but it’s likely to bore the pants off everyone else. If you want to go ahead and check it out, the text is available online at archive.org. Make sure that you read this version though, as some of the other versions online only contain the first two out of its three volumes.

melmoth wanderer penguinMelmoth the Wanderer – Charles Maturin
Penguin – 2012 (Originally published in 1820)

Like I said earlier on, I bought my copy of Salathiel quite a while ago. I had originally planned to make this a comparative post weighing Croly’s book against Charles Stuart Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a book that I had read long before hearing of Croly’s. Unfortunately, so much time has passed since reading Melmoth that I can’t remember it terribly well. I do recall it being similar to Salathiel in the following ways:

  • It is also excessively long.
  • It is also about a cursed immortal.
  • It was also written by a protestant clergyman from Dublin.

Unlike Salathiel however, Melmoth the Wanderer is very definitely a Gothic novel. Its title character is immortal due to his dealings with Satan, not Jesus Christ. I know that I enjoyed Melmoth, but I recall it getting a bit boring in places. Regardless, all book-goths are obliged to read this one. The cover of the edition of this book that I own is one of the reasons that I try not to buy modern reprints of old books. Luminous pink, turquoise and orange for the cover of one of the classics of Gothic literature? No fucking thank you Mr. Penguin!

 

*The following is the list of Paul Murray’s 10 favourite Gothic novels from the article that set me on the track of Salathiel.

  1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  2. History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
  3. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  6. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
  7. Salathiel the Immortal by George Croly
  8. Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Pecket Prest
  9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Now that this post has been published, I have managed to review all of these books except Frankenstein. I’ll have to reread it and get it up here soon!

Le Fanu’s Short Stories – Madam Crowl’s Ghost and In a Glass Darkly

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Sheridan Le Fanu – Madam Crowl’s Ghost & Other Stories / In A Glass Darkly
Wordsworth Editions – 2006 and 2008

Here are two collections of short stories from one of my favourite writers. I would recommend the Oxford edition of In A Glass Darkly, as that one contains nice notes at the back. Wordsworth editions are bare bones and rarely contain annotation. They are cheap however, and I own quite a few of them.

In A Glass Darkly is the better of the two collections. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I distinctly remember the joy I felt when the evil monkey appeared the first story. It’s also great because it contains lesbian vampires in a vampire story that predates Dracula. I think my favourite story in here is the novella: The Room in Le Dragon Volant. It’s not as spooky as the others, but I really like Le Fanu’s writing

Madam Crowl’s Ghost is a nice collection of ghost stories compiled by none other than M.R James. I read this one more recently, but I read the first two stories on a transatlantic flight and didn’t end up enjoying them as much as I would have were I to read them on the couch at midnight with a cup of peppermint tea. The stories in here are collected from different sources, and the quality and tone varies quite a bit. Some are great though, and most of them are set in Ireland. You can imagine my sheer delight on finding a story in here about a man from my hometown who shares my name. I loved this book, but the other collection is probably a better place to start if you haven’t read Le Fanu before.

Kyteler’s Inn

kyteler sign
Hark! What is this treachery? This looks like a review of a restaurant, not a book!

This isn’t really a review at all; it’s more an appendix to my earlier post on St. John D. Seymour’s Irish Witchcraft and Demonology.

Alice Kyteler was a wealthy woman from Kilkenny, Ireland. By her mid forties, three of her husbands had died, and her latest was dying. An opportunistic bishop named Richard de Ledrede jumped at the chance to confiscate the immense wealth that Alice had built up from her previous marriages. In 1323, she was accused of killing her husbands through poisoning and heretical sorcery. She was also accused of sacrificing animals to the divil, and having communications with a incubus named Robert, Son of Art.

The whole affair was fairly mad. The bishop himself spent some time in prison for underestimating Alice’s powerful connections. Alice’s first son and her maid Petronella were accused of being in on the mischief, and poor Petronella was tortured and burnt alive. Alice managed to escape from Kilkenny, and nobody is quite sure what happened to her.

There’s much better, and more detailed versions of the story online; my favourite account of her life is this TG4 documentary (as Gaeilge). I think that her story would make a really great film.

Anyways, apparently this inn used to be her home. It’s a cool pub, and the food was nice. I’ll definitely go back if I’m ever in Kilkenny again.
Here’s the website: http://www.kytelersinn.com/
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Alice’s familiar, Robert filius Artis and I.